My time in Botswana began with traditional dancing, and dancing has followed me through tents and past campfires, kicking up dust and leaving flattened grass in its wake. During my time here, I have had two very distinct firsts with dancing: the first time I watched, and the first time I became a part of the whirlwind of stomping feet and rattling ankle bands.
The first time I watched, I was entranced. Wide smiles stretched across the faces of the performers, and there was no fear lurking in their eyes. They were having fun. Members of the crowd let out long strings of ululation, showing their appreciation and joining the dance in their own way.
Traditional skirts are used during dance-based rating mituals. Photo by Angie Tenebrini
I was outside of the crowd, unsure of myself. I was certain there was some secret I wasn’t in on, some class I was missing on how to be a good Batswana audience member. I wanted to call out as well, but I felt as though there were invisible hands holding me back. Even pressed between bodies in the audience, sun beating down on my back the same as anyone else, I felt other.
I felt the same way the first time I got to dance. I was plucked from the crowd and led onto the stage by a performer, the eyes of my peers following me. The whole time I was stuck in what I thought dance had to be, what I thought other people wanted from me. I kept my eyes glued on the feet of the performer next to me, trying my best to imitate his rhythm, his steps. As my feet started to stomp out a decent mirror of the performer’s movement, he whirled me to the back of the crowd, stopping me before I could carry on dancing.
“Move your hips,” he told me. “This is not dancing.”
For a moment, I felt like I had failed. I hadn’t copied his steps well enough, I was too clumsy, not good enough. But as we rejoined the rest of the group, I stopped looking at anyone’s feet, I stopped thinking about who could see me, or what they were thinking. I felt the invisible hands peel back, finger by finger, and I danced.
Photo by Angie Tenebrini
There are so many opportunities to dance, to learn, and to grow that are given to us. The only reason we can’t take them is our own self-imposed rules and expectations. This is especially true at TGS, where learning is so closely intertwined with travel, the experiences and potential presented by both are so easily overlooked, so often missed. Until we learn to leave behind our own set of invisible hands, it is impossible for us to truly experience travel and learning, to truly experience life.
While I was dancing that night, I felt as if I could breathe freely, as if a weight had been lifted off of my chest. My heartbeat sped up, and for once it wasn’t fear that I’d be judged, that I’d be punished for this moment of freedom later. It was an unfettered, unconscious, and exuberant flood of joy, the thrill of being bold and living through it.
As I returned to my seat that night, my performer smiled at me. “Now that is dancing.”